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Vermonter Helps Macedonian Jews Plant Hope

April 13, 2008

By Christopher Deliso

It’s a clear warm spring day high on a barren, charred plateau in Macedonia, and Mike Goldstein is holding a Hebrew prayer book in his hands, with a row of tiny saplings decorating the freshly-turned earth at his feet.

A retired general in the Vermont National Guard, Mike has been asked by the tiny Balkan country’s Jewish community to lead the ceremonial planting of some 7,200 trees with a recitation of the sheheheyanu, the Hebrew prayer that marks new beginnings and hope for the future. It is a number heavy with significance; the little saplings are meant to honor the memory of the 7,200 Macedonian Jews who died in the Holocaust. Flanked by community members young and old, schoolchildren and even a few local officials, Mike pronounces the prayer for hope, as well as a second, the elegiac kaddish invoked at times of mourning.

How this kindly old military man from Burlington ended up on this unlikely Balkan bluff, between a spectacular gorge and majestic, snow-covered peaks, is a fascinating tale that reveals not only one man’s life-changing personal experience, but also a unique connection between Macedonia and Vermont, one which will probably come as a surprise to most Vermonters.

Mike fell in love with Macedonia in 1996, after being sent with a Vermont Guard corps  to help train the fledgling ex-Yugoslav country’s  army  under the auspices of NATO’s Partnership for Peace program. About as large as Vermont, dotted with lakes and rippling with forested mountains stretching over 6,000 feet high, Macedonia had obvious natural appeal. It also had millennia of history, with signs of civilization dating back to prehistoric times and rich archeological remains of civilizations such as the ancient Macedonians, Romans, Byzantines, Bulgarians and Ottoman Turks. But most of all, says Mike, he developed a fondness for the people: “the kindness and friendliness of the Macedonians was remarkable,” he notes. “I realized that these were the kind of people I enjoyed being around.”

One local group made an especially deep impression. Through the suggestion of his translation assistant, this Vermont descendent of Lithuanian Jews decided to make contact with Macedonia’s tiny Jewish community, who numbered only around 200 people. On March 11, 1996, Mike was invited to attend the community’s annual commemoration of the Holocaust in the Macedonian capital of Skopje. On that date in 1943, the Nazi-allied Bulgarian army, which then occupied Macedonia, deported 7,200 Jews – some 98 percent of the whole Jewish population – to the Treblinka concentration camp in Poland.

This catastrophe all but destroyed Macedonia’s once thriving and culturally rich Jewish community, which traced its roots back to Ladino-speaking Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain following the Inquisition in 1492. Taken in by the Ottoman Turkish sultan, the Jews had been resettled within the empire’s extensive Balkan territories, with Macedonia becoming an especially significant center of Sephardic Jewish culture.

Following Macedonia’s peaceful separation from Yugoslavia in 1991, it began taking steps to make restitutions to descendents of Holocaust victims, and to the larger Jewish community in cases where no living heirs could be found. American Jewish groups, the State Department and the government of Israel have all credited the Macedonians for their efforts, which have surpassed those of several larger and wealthier countries in central and eastern Europe. Presently, a Holocaust Memorial Center is under construction in Skopje, on the same spot where the city’s Jewish quarter once stood along the banks of the winding River Vardar.

Although Mike Goldstein retired from the military in 1999, he found that his bond with Macedonia was a permanent one, and he has been coming back every year to show solidarity with the Macedonian Jews as they commemorate the tragedies of the past. This year, the remarkable convergence of that event with another symbolic act made Mike’s visit even more historic. The day after the Holocaust memorial ceremony, Goldstein and the Jewish community did their part in an extraordinary nationwide event: the planting of over 2 million trees by volunteers of all ages, including politicians, celebrities, grandparents and grandchildren, and even border policemen from neighboring states. Spearheaded by Macedonian opera singer Boris Trajanov, the mass planting was meant to help replenish the country’s forests, following last summer’s unfortunate spate of wildfires.

“The day was symbolic on a lot of levels,” says Mike, noting that the planting was a gesture of commitment to Macedonia’s ecological restoration, while for the Jews it “helped dignify the memory of those who died.” In the bigger picture, as the organizers had hoped, the Den na Drvoto (“Day of the Tree,” in Macedonian) proved that Macedonia’s sometimes fractious ethnic groups could indeed work together for the common good. Only seven years ago, Macedonia stood on the brink of civil war with an uprising from the ethnic Albanian minority, bolstered by Albanian volunteers from northern neighbor Kosovo. However, an internationally-brokered treaty soon restored the peace, and since then the country has been slowly but surely working towards its goals of economic development and membership in key international bodies such as the European Union and NATO.

While the former is still some years away, Macedonia is an EU candidate country and hopes to be given a date for the opening of membership talks later this year. Regarding NATO, however, Macedonia suffered an unfortunate setback when Greece threatened to veto its membership invitation at the Alliance’s April 2-4 summit in Bucharest, Romania. Greece, which also has a northern province called Macedonia, demands that the Republic of Macedonia change its name, claiming that the latter has territorial ambitions towards Greek Macedonia- something which the Macedonians deny and which everyone except Greece finds absurd. Despite the impassioned personal intercession of President Bush at the Summit, the Greeks were unmoved, and so Macedonia’s NATO invitation remains conditional on resolution of the name dispute.

Mike Goldstein was one of the many Americans saddened by Macedonia’s failure to gain NATO membership, feeling that the country was eminently worthy of joining the Alliance. He has a strong personal connection here. As a Vermont National Guard general, Mike helped guide Macedonia through the military reform and training process that eventually brought it up to NATO standards. Despite Greece’s mean-spirited action, Mike has nothing but praise for the Macedonian soldiers he has worked with and known over the years. “They were always eager students, and quick learners,” he recalls. “When we had them here [at the National Guard’s School for Mountain Warfare] in Vermont, they really showed their aptitude- and they loved the ice climbing training we do here.”

Indeed, says Mike, the country is richly deserving of NATO membership. It has carried out reforms, downsizing and professionalizing according to instructions, and for years already has unquestioningly committed troops (around four percent of the entire army) to American missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, where they have seen action. In fact, notes Mike, “at least one Macedonian soldier has received a medal from the US military, for saving the lives of American soldiers in a combat situation.”

As the negotiations continue in the coming months between Greece and Macedonia, Mike will be one of the many Vermonters previously involved with training the Macedonian army who is pulling for the small country- one which has, despite so many obstacles and problems, managed to cling to its identity and culture, and which continues to provide Mike with moments to treasure, liking planting trees in solidarity with Macedonia’s welcoming Jews.

*This article was originally published by the Burlington Free Press on April 13, 2008.

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